12 OYS: Lawmakers scold Augusta VA for possibly violating religious freedoms

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / March 21, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW) -- Some lawmakers are lashing out at Augusta VA Hospital officials just months after they restricted some Christmas carolers from singing certain songs inside the facility.

They are accusing the hospital of obstructing and censoring volunteers and possibly violating basic constitutional rights.

"We were just going down because we thought it was just a great thing the veterans had always appreciated it in the past years," said Dan Funsch, principal at Alleluia Community School in Augusta.

But last Christmas season Funsch said he and his students got a surprise of their own. He said his carolers were restricted from singing particular songs.

"Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World --all of the traditional Christmas songs, Funsch said.

They were able to sing in years past at Charlie Norwood VA Hospital uptown. This past Christmas they were trying to continue the tradition at the downtown facility.

"There seemed to be some difficulty," Funsch said. He said the group was kept from singing in public areas of the hospital.

In a letter exclusively obtained by News 12, U.S. Representative and Committee on Veteran's Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller said, "VA officials clearly ignored longstanding federal government traditions, basic common sense and possibly a 2011 federal consent decree that ordered VA not to ban religious speech."

"Our fear was that the VA would become just a sterile place that there would be no mention of the birth of Jesus," Funsch said.

In response to Representative Miller's scolding of the Augusta VA, Secretary of Veteran's Affairs Eric Shineski said, "I regret any misunderstandings that occurred at these facilities at Christmas. VA is extremely grateful for volunteers who take time to remember, visit and support our heroes."

So, for now, it appears Funsch and his students may be able to continue the holiday tradition. I'm very hopeful that things will end up in a good place," Funsch said.

"We are in full support of the secretary's position and will this year, as we did last year, be supportive of holiday events and visitors," a local VA spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the local VA has contacted Dan Funsch and said sides have reached a satisfactory understanding.

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